Event draws families in search of their missing loved ones

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by Cynthia Price
Legal News

They came for a variety of reasons: some because they long to know what has happened to beloved family members, some because they suspect their missing loved ones are still alive and they want them back, and, sadly, some who just seek to find their loved ones’ remains.

But it is a sure thing that the families who attended last Saturday’s Missing in Michigan event ended up receiving some level of comfort and support, along with the chance to inform law enforcement about the details of their cases.

Organizer Sarah Krebs of the Michigan State Police (MSP), who is a forensic artist, says that she was thrilled with  the second annual Missing in Michigan Day, held from 2:00-7:00 p.m. at DeVos Place. Prior to the event, Det./Trooper Krebs said, “We want families to know we still care and we haven’t stopped looking for their loved one. With advances in technology, there is more that can be done, like utilizing family reference DNA samples and online profiles that equip law enforcement with additional resources to help solve missing person cases.”

According to Krebs, last year’s event in Detroit enabled law enforcement agencies to help 42 families of the missing. That event drew about 500 people, and Krebs estimates that 200 to 250 people attended the Grand Rapids event.

“It's too early to tell if we have ‘solved’ any cases yet, but I can say that cases were reported to Law Enforcement that never had been before,” Krebs comments, adding that one of the previously-unreported cases involved someone who had been missing for 40 years.

There are many categories of missing person. The National Crime Information Center categorizes missing persons as Voluntarily Missing, Involuntarily Missing (Abducted), Endangered Missing, Disabled Missing (that is, due to a mental illness or medical condition), Juvenile Runaway, or Catastrophe Missing — as a result of an airplane crash or other accident. There is also “Missing Other.”

On the flip side, there are also the unidentified remains of people who may or may not be among the missing loved ones sought.

In fact, that was the main motivation behind Krebs becoming a missing persons advocate, and ultimately developing the Missing in Michigan events — although she stresses how lucky she is to have the full backing of MSP - “ a great and innovative agency.”

In her forensic artist role, she was involved with reconstructing faces from those remains so they could be identified. Krebs met families who had long searched for their loved ones, but without any official capacity to connect them with the list of unidentified deceased, she felt an opportunity was missed.

“We might have had their body in one of our morgues, on a property room shelf or buried in an unmarked grave the whole time,” Krebs says. “Sometimes, only miles from where they originally went missing.  There was just no one working in an ‘official’ capacity to connect the dots.”

Even for those like Therese McComb, who attended on Saturday, knowing where her daughter Venus Stewart’s body is would help give her a sense of closure. McComb says that Stewart’s killer has confessed and is serving a life sentence in prison, but McComb cannot rest until she finds out where her beloved daughter’s remains are.

McComb has nothing but praise for law enforcement and, in particular, for the St. Joseph County Victim Services Unit, whose Linda Baker was in attendance as well. But she and many other family members attended Saturday and set up a display so that they can be sure they are following every avenue open to them to keep Venus Stewart’s image before anyone who can possibly help.

Families in this situation are more common than one might suppose. About them, Krebs says,  “I am a firm believer that this has to be done for them to have any sense of closure —  but I don't even like to use the term closure actually, I prefer ‘closing that chapter’ in their lives so they can finally fully grieve.”

In addition to speakers and music, Missing in Michigan Day centered around displays by law enforcement agencies who can help.

Chief among them was the Kent County Cold Case Team, whose work has already resulted in many families being able to “close the chapter.” (See  Grand Rapids Legal News 4/29/11.)
Det./Sgt. Sally Wolters says that Cold Case personnel have been quite busy lately; many readers may recall seeing articles earlier this month about the team reopening the 1981 missing person case of Deanie Peters.

In addition, there were search-and-rescue robots, representatives of trained canine search teams, and an online database where photographs, dental and medical records, and other information brought to the event by family members could be recorded.

MSP Sgt. Matt Churchill staffed a display of the different kinds of services forensic artists can offer, which include suspect identification sketches, age progressions on both missing persons and fugitives, and the previously-mentioned unidentified body reconstructions.

Churchill emphasized that MSP provides this kind of assistance to all agencies throughout the state, something that many people don’t know. “A lot of people think all we do is highway traffic stops,” Churchill says, “but we actually offer a lot of services to law enforcement agencies.”

Krebs adds that, regardless of the type of missing person, “We try to help all families.  Some of the cases...we find people who simply don't want to have contact with family anymore..., but we do re-contact the family to let them know that they are alive and well.”

Krebs has some detailed ideas of what she would like to see concerned individuals advocate for. “[The Legislature] needs to make better laws in our state regarding unidentified deceased... there is nothing in the law books that I can find regarding DNA sampling on unidentified remains.” If it were mandatory to take a DNA reference sample before an unidentified body is buried, that would help with future identification. Krebs also would like to have legislation regarding who pays for an exhumation introduced “if we have a potential match.”

“I know our state can do better,” she adds.

People wanting more information can visit  www.missinginmichigan.com. Missing persons groups include the Doe Network of the International Center for Unidentified and Missing Persons, at  http://doenetwork.org; “Let’s Bring Them Home,” at http://www. lbth.org/ncma/index.php; and the National Missing and Unidentified Persons bureau, or NamUs, at www.namus.gov.